Huddled on the deck behind the ferry’s glass partition, we gaze out at the slate grey seas, the misty outline of distant mountains on the horizon. The low hum of the ship’s engines throbs in the background. Wrapped in our cold weather gear we barely notice the biting wind as the ship cuts steadily through the low white-capped chop of the Japan Sea. Naturally, the object of our attention is the birdlife – and there is plenty to captivate us.
The huge vessel ploughs through the sea but seems as steady as a rock as I key up the scope on a small, slender bird bobbing on the surface. As I screw in the focus dial, a delicate and gorgeous Red-necked Phalarope comes into resolution. As I lift my gaze from the lens the phalarope takes off with at least 200 of its fellow travelers; these graceful waders wheel over the surface of the icy waves and disappear into the distance.
We shift our attention to the rear of the ship and catch sight of a small gathering of Laysan’s Albatrosses; the magnificent flock glides effortlessly over the rough surface of the water. Soon, they are joined by a darker, smaller but equally elegant, porcelain-plumaged beauty: the Black-footed Albatross seems to float over to the ship in order to satisfy its curiosity and then vanishes beyond the bow.
Thousands of Streaked Shearwaters swing around the side of our ship and disappear over the bow. A lull in activity reminds us of the cold but then we notice a small group of black baubles floating off the starboard side. Lifting my binoculars I see a pigeon-shaped creature with orange markings around the face and a little tuft of white feathers in front of the forehead. A rather strange-looking creature – a Rhinoceros Auklet! The ship cuts past and the diminutive bird takes flight, vanishing just as it appeared, into the deep blue seas.
A call for breakfast comes over the loudspeaker and our tummy rumblings can no longer be ignored. Like the others, I need sustenance after the excitement of the morning, so I choose the Japanese breakfast. As I munch on a plate of rice and fish (yes, it’s delicious), I keep one eye out the window to examine rafts of Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters; they bob up and down like objects in a Japanese matsuri festival. This is what it’s all about!
We down our food, but are all itching to get back out to the deck – we’d hate to miss anything. Sure enough, we’re soon reveling in the company of more Rhinoceros Auklets. As they pass by the side of the ship, we notice a smaller bird with bold, white markings that identify it as Japanese Murrelet – a scarce and very charming endemic. My companions and I are thrilled. Suddenly the surface of the water is broken by shiny, black fins arcing through the waves – bright, white slashes along the flanks – and we are privileged to be in the company of a pod of White-sided Dolphins, happily not uncommon in these rich waters.
One of the great things about ferry travel in Japan is that if you start to feel a bit chilled you can make your way back to your cabin and warm up with a fabulously hot shower. After coming so far, it’s hard to imagine missing even a single flyover, so one can bird even during breaks from a small window in the cabin.
As we approach the Tsugara Straits, I alert the group that we often see an increase in bird activity. Suiting up again our group made way to the deck, binoculars at the ready. A flurry of activity gets the adrenalin going as I lock on to Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels fluttering over the surface of the water, occasionally dipping their feet in the meniscus. These dainty creatures are called umi tsubame in Japanese – sea swallow. What a perfect description!
The Tsugara Straits separate the main island of Honshu from Hokkaido. Between the two islands the birdlife is noticeably different. The straits mark an imaginary line between the two biogeographic zones of the Palearctic Hokkaido and the rest of Oriental Japan. Maybe tomorrow or the next day we will find Hazel Grouse in the beech forests or Pine Grosbeak on the Kurodake peak of Hokkaido.
In the meantime, as we approach Tomakomai in Japan’s far north, we notice a subtle shift in the make up of the birdlife that surrounds our vessel. The Streaked Shearwaters that accompanied us from Tokyo suddenly are nowhere to be found while rafts of Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters become larger and more frequent. Suddenly there’s a shout – whales! Huge, black objects breach the surface. In a second the pilot whales vanish soon to reappear, then disappear again – a brief but wild encounter. As if this excitement isn’t enough a couple of Northern fur seals make an appearance, cavorting off to the side of the ship. A Northern Fulmar offers only a fleeting glimpse as it speeds off into the distance.
As darkness approaches, the lights of Tomakomai port appear on the horizon and the excitement of the day at sea fades into the excitement of what lies ahead in the forests, mountains, volcanoes, and capes of Hokkaido. Tomorrow, as they say, is another day!
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